Ekweremadu on constitution review: What we did, failed to do

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Former Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu in this chat with journalists speaks on the moves to amend the constitution for Nigeria. He made incisive statements on previous amendment efforts, open grazing etc. Excerpts:

For so many years, we have been on this issue of constitution amendment. Many Nigerians now see it as a waste of time and effort…

It will be unfair to say that what we have is a fruitless exercise. On our part as parliamentarians, we broke the jinx in 2010 and from then on, we have had about four scenarios. We have a list of those we were able to pass, concurred by the State Houses of Assembly, and assented to by the President. There is another set, which includes those we passed, then concurred by the State Houses of Assembly, and sent to the President, but which the President refused to assent to. There is another set that was passed by the National Assembly, but which did not succeed at the level of State Assemblies. Then we have the final set, which are those we considered at the National Assembly, but which did not get the requisite number in order to send them to the State Houses of Assembly.

So, it could not have been a waste. And I can tell you that if all those clauses were successful, we would not be where we are today because most of the things we are talking about today, including devolution of powers were amended. We devolved powers from the Exclusive List to the Concurrent List and sent it to the President. Of course, it didn’t get the required assent. We separated the Office of the Attorney-General from the Office of the Minister of Justice, that of Commissioner of Justice from Attorney-General of the State, but it was not assented to.

We also proposed compulsory saving by the Federal Government and the States from our oil revenues as done in most countries. This we did by amending Section 162. Again it was not assented to. Now the implication is that we have not been saving for the rainy day because if you look at Section 162, every kobo coming to the federation goes into the Federation Account and is shared. No mention was made of how to save money.

This is not what other countries that produce oil are doing. In a place like Norway, they don’t touch their oil revenues. They call it an Equity Fund and they save that for the future. Saudi Arabia invests theirs and only spends the proceeds of those investments. But here, we spend the money even before it comes. Nobody survives with that kind of attitude

So, you can see that some of the critical areas we amended were not assented to. Some, including the decentralisation of police, could not pass through the National Assembly, and that is why we are where we are today.

So, we made efforts and played our roles, but there were some frustrating circumstances. We just do hope that those who were behind those frustrating days will be able to learn from all that is going on now. We hope too that this current process will be completed and then assented to by the President.

Okay, those bottlenecks, which include getting two-thirds of the State Houses of Assembly to accept Local Government reform and all that, are still there. Do you think there would be a rethink this time around?

Well, I don’t want to sound pessimistic. The National Union of Local Government Employees, NULGE, met with me last week. I told them there was no need to come to us at the National Assembly. We have always passed amendments to reform the local governments. I advised them to go to the Nigerian Governors Forum and have a conversation with them. Go to the State Assemblies and talk to them because as far as the reform of the Local Government system is concerned, the problem is at the level of the states.

The problem with the local government system in Nigeria also is that the drafters of the constitution were not sure of what they wanted. If you go to Section 7, Section 8, and Section 162 of the Constitution, you will see the confusion. Section 7 says that the states should ensure democratically elected local governments in the various states. That shows that it is the responsibility of the states to ensure that local government exists. That means they are talking about two tiers of government.

But if you go to Section 162, it is saying that monies accruing to the Federation Account will be shared among three tiers of government, which is the federal, state, and local government. So, the Constitution is not even sure if we are running a three-tier federation or two tiers. A three-tier system is like that of India, while a two-tier system is like that of Canada and the USA. So, we need to be sure of what we want because if it is a three-tier system, it means that all the apparatus of government, including legislative functions and judicial functions will be present at the local government level.

This is akin to what we had under the military regimes. I was a local government Chairman in 1997. We were controlling our resources. But the 1999 Constitution changed all that and now we have Joint Local Government Account into which the states are supposed to contribute. But I am sure no state contributes to it.

Can you tell us if open grazing is in the constitution?

Well, if you look at the Constitution, the issue of grazing essentially should be a matter for the States because it has to do with land. Under the Land Use Act, which is part of our Constitution, the lands belong to the states and not to the Federal Government. So, when the states met and said, look, we don’t want open grazing, it was within the purview of their powers.

I think we need to have a meeting of the state officials and federal officials at some point instead of talking from both sides of the mouth as if they don’t read anything. We can’t be insulting ourselves on the pages of newspapers. We need to sit down and make sure that reason will prevail in governing ourselves as a nation. It doesn’t make any sense to be calling ourselves names, as it doesn’t achieve anything. The laws are straightforward.

Some people talked about a new constitution. How can we realise that under the present constitution amendment?

I have heard that over and over again. Some say bring back the 1960 Constitution. Some say bring back the 1963 Constitution. Some say, okay, why don’t we just throw away this Constitution and bring a new one.

However, there is no such provision to do so under our present Constitution, unless you are calling for anarchy.

If you say we need a new constitution, the answer is simple. When other countries like Kenya, like Brazil had a similar challenge, what they did was to amend the original constitution in order to make a provision on how a new constitution can be enacted. We did it, including a provision for a referendum, the last time, in the 7th National Assembly, but it was still not approved.

Unless we amend Section 9 to lay the foundation, we cannot do that. Otherwise, you are creating anarchy. So, we need to amend Section 9 on how we can create a new Constitution, including especially the issue of referendum.

We have done a whole lot of amendments, which many Nigerians don’t even know about. So, there is confusion already. And when we amend more the confusion in differentiating what has been amended and what has not been amended will only increase. Even with ordinary Acts of the National Assembly, after several or far-reaching amendments, the usual proper thing we do is to repeal and re-enact the law.

So, I think we must save ourselves all this trouble and ensure we have a provision under Section 9 on how to bring about a new constitution. That has to be clearly spelt out. Whether we are doing a new constitution today, tomorrow or next year, we need to take advantage of this exercise to provide how a new constitution can come into being. So, at the appropriate time, we can now trigger that provision and be able to have a conversation, draft a new constitution, and go through the constitutional provision and have it approved at the requite levels so that we can have a new constitution that will encompass all these amendments.

Given the state of the nation and many threatening challenges, some Nigerians are calling for a talk by ethnic nationalities. What is your view?

Once any nation runs into a problem like we do now, the usual thing to do is to say: okay, let us come together and talk. There is nothing new even in what we are doing. I mean this constitution amendment exercise. So, if you bring together all the ethnic nationalities, they are not going to say anything new. We have had conversions. We have had the national confab.

Just as someone suggested, why don’t we just dust up the constitution amendments we had done earlier or simply improve on them and get the reasonable and requisite number to approve it and send it to the president.

In the same manner, if we say let us look at those issues and resolutions we have had in the past confabs, nothing is new, and nothing has changed. But if we look at them and set up a committee to look at it in one week then we can now find a way to legislate on it. It is not enough to talk. We have to agree on how we shall operationalise what we discussed. That is the issue. Unless we address this, it will be like every other talks or confabs.

How could the ongoing constitution amendment process address the security challenge in the country because that is the number one problem facing the country today? Nigerians are unsafe as never before.

Some of us have been on this issue for many years now. I have been on the issue of decentralised policing for the past ten years or more and if they had listened to us, we wouldn’t have been where we are today.

Let me give you a scenario: If all of us live in an estate and one of us, say myself, lives in a big mansion and has a very big generator and believes he can take care of the power needs of all of us in the estate, and you are now telling me that look, we all need to have our individual generators, and I say no, don’t worry. The idea might be to control when you have light and when you don’t have light. It may be good for me. But I forget that one day, my big generator could have a problem and all of us will be in total darkness.

But if I allow you to have your small generating sets, if that big one breaks down, there will be light in most places. That is the problem we have in Nigeria. No federal nation in the world does what we are doing. Every federal country is identified with multiple layers of policing. And even the unitary countries like the United Kingdom also decentralised their police.

If we had allowed decenrtelised policing in Nigeria, we could have had a 774 police system in 774 local governments. We could have had 36 state police services, different security networks, and also have one in Abuja. The big elephant in the house would have been the federal police. If it collapses, the other layers of policing would have been there, helping out.

But what has happened is that the federal police, which is the only one, has collapsed and that is why we are having all the problems. If we had what they do in America and other federal states, it could never happen. This thing can’t happen even in South Africa. It can’t happen in Australia and it can’t happen in Canada and Brazil. Never, because all the various layers of police can’t all collapse at the same time.

So, until we decentralise our police and have a back up to the federal police, we are going to continue to have this problem. Many years ago, I warned that things were going to get worse if we continued with the same thing we were doing and as I speak to you now we are worse off and if they still don’t do it right now things will only get worse because nobody does what we are doing. Nobody. We need to wake up and do the right thing before it is too late.

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Ekweremadu on constitution review: What we did, failed to do

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